The DARED SL-2000A Preamp and VP-20 Power Amp
|The DARED SL-2000A Preamp and VP-20 Power Amp|
|Daring to be different|
So there I was, minding my own business when I get a message from CP, our illustrious publisher, telling me that there is someone of interest in my neighborhood and that he would like for me to speak with this person concerning an equipment review. I thought it was strange that there was a manufacturer or distributor of high-end audio gear in my little village whom I was not familiar with. But far be it from me to miss out on a chance to make a new audio acquaintance, especially a local one. A short time later I was in contact with Joe Zhou, a distributor for Dared Audio, a tube electronics company based in China. We chatted for a while and eventually agreed to meet to discuss the possibility of me reviewing a Dared amplifier and preamplifier. I found Zhou to be very friendly and meticulous, but above all, he’s a music lover who likes vacuum tube electronics. Joe is very knowledgeable about most of the different tubes and just about any of the vacuum tubes made in China. I surfed over to the Dared website and found a couple of helpful bits of information. First, Dared actually has several lines in their range: the Mini, Imperial, New Classic, and Flagship. All of their products are nicely finished and look like relative bargains. Second, D-A-R-E-D is actually an acronym for,Dignified Artistic Reliable Elegant Decent. I thought this was kind of interesting since rarely do you see a high-end company use the word “Decent” in their moniker. After a little listening, I’d have to say that they are fairly accurate with their choices of words, but please, read on.
The Dared Mini’s Arrive
I embarked upon this Dared Audio journey when Joe Zhou came by and dropped off the 2005 models of SL-2000A preamplifier and VP-20 amplifier. Everything was contained in one nice sized box. Imagine my surprise when I opened the box to find the amplifier, preamplifier, power supply, vacuum tubes and everything else in the box. I soon discovered that I would be reviewing equipment from their “Mini” line. I examined the equipment as I unboxed it all and began to put it together. Then I looked over at my Martin-Logan Quests. I could have sworn that they started to smile and rub their hands together as though a tasty amplifier morsel was going to be served up for dinner. I snapped the Logans back to reality and told them not to even think about having the VP-20 hooked up to them because it wasn’t going to happen. The SL-2000A and the VP-20 are solidly made, and look rather stylish for their size. The name and model number of each piece has been tastefully silk-screened on the right side of each chassis. According to Zhou (isn’t that the name of movie? –Ed.), the SL-2000A is a very simply designed entry-level line stage preamp. The total gain is about 20dB. The remote is small and simple and only controls the volume. The input coupling capacitors are US-made Auricap capacitors. The volume control pot is an analog DC motor driven Japanese-made ALPS attenuator. The wires from the RCA inputs to the volume pot are shielded pure silver wires and the unit also uses a four-pin 5Z4P (can use four-pin 5Y3 or GZ30 too) rectifier tube.
The VP-20 is a very refined classic 6L6G push-pull design. Some of its unique points are:
• High quality “E-Core” output Transformers (use QA oxygen-free high-conductivity copper (OFHC) and high permeability Si-steel (Silicon steel, Hipersil from Japan) sheet coil adopt sectionalized, stratified and strands parallel winding)
• The high-current independent toroidal power transformer: it is exceptionally quiet.
• Separated power supply: they eliminate any possible interference between power source and amps (only DC cables go between the power supply and amps), produce pure sound.
• Monoblocks: they eliminate any possible interference between the channels to preserve true sound stage/imaging.
• Auricap (USA made) coupling and BlackGate (Japan made) bypass capacitors for signal tubes and NIPPON Chemi-Con (Japan made) filter, superior transient response and extremely high resolution.
• Pure silver (shield) signal and loop wires and double-side (layer) board with shortest paths, gold RCAs and 5-way gold binding posts: fast and transparent and one of the quietest tube PP amps on the market today!
• All internal wiring is point-to-point, point-to-board, and path on the board are optimized to be shortest possible. There is no messy/lengthy/spaghetti point-to-point wiring in these amps.
The 2006 models will have further improvements with Allen Bradley NOS resistors (US made), gold PCB instead of copper, and gold contacts on the tube sockets.
Dared to perform
I used the SL-2000A and VP-20 together and in separate systems. Let me start this section off by saying that it is recommended that you use efficient, easy to drive speakers when you use these two pieces together. My Almarro M2As, on occasion, would present a little bit of a load for the VP-20 (and its 18 watts) to drive when I had the volume turned up a bit. But Zhou, in his infinite wisdom, allowed me to borrow his highly efficient Coincident Technologies Eclipse loudspeakers. This presented the Dared duo with a much more manageable load. Satisfied that I had given the Dared gear a suitable environment in which it could show what it was capable of doing (and after a week of break-in), I proceeded with the listening. The first thing I noticed was the musical qualities of the SL-2000A and the VP-20. The Dared pieces do not sound tubey or have any tube bloat but do have all of the characteristics of tubed equipment. The musical presentation is on the slightly warm side of neutral but only slightly so. Instruments do have a subtle bloom to them that was pleasant and the timbre is lifelike. There was not much tube noise as much of listening was done with my Cary 306/200 and the Esoteric UX-3 which possess very quiet backgrounds. It reproduced jazz and vocal with a level of presence and detail that I didn’t think these mini-units were capable of. Brass and woodwind instruments sounded natural and the individual performances were easy to follow. Bass, even with the easy to drive speakers, was … okay, about as good as could be hoped for given their diminutive size. Upon first listen, there was, however, a little something missing. Somehow, I was not getting that connection with the performers. I was not being drawn into the music. The music was there and I could hear everything I would expect to hear, but there was nothing that made me want to sit down and listen. Being thorough, I decided to split the two pieces, using the SL-2000A on other amplifiers I had on hand and to use my Sonic Euphoria passive linestage on the VP-20. I was getting the same type of performance after these moves were made and was a little perplexed.
I called Zhou and explained my findings to him and without hesitation he knew exactly what the problem was. Zhou is very knowledgeable about identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the vacuum tubes made in China and had a few ideas. A short time later, he showed up at my home with some Tung-Sol 12AT7 tubes to replace the Chinese tubes in the SL-2000A and Electro-Harmonix 6L6GC tubes to replace the Chinese tubes in the VP-20. The improvement made by switching out these tubes was quite obvious. There were increases in performance made across the board. Everything became more coherent, dynamics and transient response were improved, stage width and depth expanded, and performers had more presence. More importantly, I was able to get into the performances, whereas before the tube switch, I could not. After the tube change, I began to listen to some of the reference recordings I listened to previously and found the improvement to be consistent. When I listened to Victor Wooten’s solo bass work on his disc,A Show of Hands [Compass Records 742312], the Dared combination showed its vacuum tube heritage by seemingly rendering Victor palpably into my room. The overall speed at which he plucks and bends the chords was clearly audible. Piano music was presented well by the Dared combination as well. The Bill Evans Trio CD, Sunday at the Village Vanguard [JVCXR-0051-2], which is one of my favorites of Bill Evans, was delivered with the rich textures that have always been associated Evans’ sound. The complex tonal structures associated in piano are not quite as evident as with the most expensive equipment, but they were still there. Miles Davis’ CD, Amandla [Warner Brothers W225873], has a lot of electronically enhanced upper frequencies and syncopated beats. The SL-2000A and VP-20 still conveyed Miles’ tone and his understated, muted trumpet with his undeniably cool style and verve.
The Dared pieces behaved themselves quite well. There were no turn-on thumps, connectors always held fast to the speaker cables and interconnects, and my frequent power cord changes were accepted without incident. Being that there were two separate pieces to experiment with, I got in some good mixing and matching with the SL-2000A preamp and the VP-20 amplifier. I used the SL-2000A to feed a signal into the Soaring Audio SLC-A300 amplifier and found this combination to be very musical and dynamic and a good match with my Almarro M2A speakers. The same was true when the preamp was hooked up to the excellent Luminance KST-150. This combination was even more dimensional and had deeper bass, but was not quite as dynamic as when the preamp was partnered to the Soaring Audio piece. The amplifier performed well when driving the Coincident Speaker Technology Eclipse speakers and was always under control. You could hear it struggle at times (ever so slightly) with the Almarro M2As but only when the music had wide dynamic swings or when the volume on the preamp (even the VP-20) was a little on the high side.
Most of my listening was done using the Blue Circle Audio BC95 interconnects ($250/meter) which worked very well with the Dared. But the performance actually improved noticeably when I substituted the Sunny Cable Technology interconnect and speaker cables. The sound became even more coherent, detailed, and possessing of greater dynamics and bass performance. Bear in mind though that the cost of a 2m run of Sunny Cable interconnect costs more than the two Dared pieces combined. I must add that if you use mediocre cabling with the Dared equipment, that’s what you’ll get in terms of sound performance. Don’t sell these pieces short. They will perform better if you take the time to match them with better cables.
The Dared SL-2000A and VP-20 provide very good performance, especially at their price point. Be sure to use them with high efficiency speakers and remember that the choice of tubes is vital to getting the best out of these electronics. Swapping out the tubes that come with the SL-2000A for the NOS from Tung-Sol improved the performance tenfold. You may even want to try NOS tubes with the VP-20 to see if other improvements can be found. If you want to build a good and reliable system but have to consider room size and/or budget, I would definitely recommend the Dared SL-2000A and VP-20 be on your short list.
If these products from their “Mini” line sound this good, I can’t wait to find out how good pieces from their “Flagship” line are.
SL-2000A Preamp with volume remote control
Tube compliment: 2 12AT7 line tubes / 1 5Z4P rectifier
Frequency Response: 10-30KHz +/- 1.5dB
Harmonic Distortion: <0.5%
Signal-to-Noise Ratio: >84dB
Dimensions: (LxWxH) 285x140x140mm
VP-20 Push Pull Monoblocks
Tube compliment: 2 12AX7 line tubes / 2 12Au7 drive tubes / 4 6L6G power tubes
Power Output: 18 watts per channel
Frequency Response: 20Hz-20KHz +/- 1.5 dB
Harmonic Distortion: <1%
Signal-to-Noise Ratio: >85dB
Input Impedance: 100K ohms
Dimensions: (LxWxH) 285x140x140mm
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